Holding Grudges

My brother recently came to town, without telling me, and took my adult and almost adult children out to dinner with him, behind my back. He also bought them some badly needed clothes. During this visit with them he was, apparently, maligning me to my children. One of the insults he applied to me, probably the least offensive, was that I “hold grudges.” I have been puzzling over this and wondering if it is true or, even if it is, whether it is wrong for me to hold grudges in this situation.

The last time I saw my brother was shortly after my divorce was finalized. He had already broken some of his promises to me – promises on which I was completely dependent since accepting my divorce settlement, crafted by him with a lawyer he had hired. The divorce settlement trapped me in an impossible situation in which I could only survive if my brother kept his verbal promises, which he neglected to write in any contract form. I, very foolishly, trusted him. After I had fulfilled my part of our deal by signing the wholly disastrous divorce settlement which allowed my brother to buy our house and property for far below its value, in exchange for me accepting the financially crushing settlement, my brother announced that he was not going to keep some of the promises he had made in exchange. This forced me and my children to remain living in unhealthy, unsafe, sub-human conditions that he had promised to mend. Then, three months later, my brother returned to announce that he was reneging on keeping the rest of his promises as well, thereby inflicting complete disaster on us.

His method for making this announcement was by coming into our home, flying into a rage, and wrongly blaming us for something that was only due to his negligence, which was outside of our control. He commenced yelling at us, in increasing volume until he was screaming, that my children and I were “too disgusting for anyone to ever want to help!” He kept screaming this for about an hour or more, over and over, until I not only gave up trying to have a calm, adult, rational conversation with him, which had been my objective, but I also gave up defending myself and my children from his wholly unjust, ridiculous accusation. I couldn’t insert so much as a single word into our interaction, and every attempt only made him rage worse. That left me with no way to defend myself or my innocent children. The children fled the common room but could still hear their uncle raging from their bedrooms. Once he felt I was sufficiently subdued and that his destructive message had been adequately beaten into us all, he stormed out of the house.

Shortly thereafter, my sister-in-law contacted me and told me I had to talk with my brother. I refused to attempt another verbal conversation on the basis that his prior behavior had proved he had no intention of allowing me to say anything at all. Instead, I emailed a letter, identifying his behavior as abusive (in accord with numerous textbook and other authoritative psychological definitions of “abuse”) and demanding an apology. He emailed back a long letter, the gist of which was

1. His behavior was not at all abusive (based solely on his opinion).

2. My attempt to keep talking to him and to respond to every point he was making was the reason he was forced to scream at us, over and over, that we were “too disgusting for anyone to ever what to help” until he could finally get me to shut up – i.e. his behavior was all my fault.

3. He felt so good doing this to us, during and especially afterward, that he can’t imagine why we didn’t also enjoy it – with the implication that there had to be something wrong with us for not being masochistic enough to enjoy his abuse of us.

I had planned to respond to his email but, after reading that last point, decided he was too insane for any response I could make to have any positive impact. I therefore decided to have as little contact with him as possible from then on.

I was not pleased when I discovered that he was texting and meeting with my children behind my back but, as one of them is now an official adult and the other two are 17, I figured I had no way to prevent them. What I know, that my children don’t, is that my brother was physically abusive toward me during our childhood, to the point where I felt unsafe in our home. Most vivid in my memory is one scene when my mother picked us both up from middle school. I sat in the front seat and was quietly trying to work on my homework on the way home. My brother, in the back seat, suddenly reached around my seat, wrapped both his hands around my neck, and began choaking me. I begged him to stop, which made him choak me harder. I tried to pull his hands away but could not, so I dug my nails in the back of his hands. He let go with one hand, and I let him go, withdrawing my nails from that hand, hoping he would realize that I would withdraw my nails from the other one as soon as he let me go. Instead, he used his free hand to begin battering my head and neck as hard as he could, trying to force me to release his other hand so he could continue throttling me, much harder, without my interference. It was getting difficult to breathe and I was terrified he’d bash in my head or break my neck, so I began crying while trying, and failing, to shield myself with my free arm. My mother responded by yelling at me, blaming me for causing a dangerous scene and distracting her while she was driving. She insisted that my brother was only “playing” and complained that I was “overreacting.” She accused me of having no sense of play, no sense of fun or humor, and said that this was why no one would like me, love me or value me in my life. I was doomed to failure because I could not enjoy my brother strangling me. My brother had been increasingly abusive toward me, throughout our lives, but that was the moment when I finally realized that, according to my family, I had no right at all even to my own body. I had no right to defend myself. If my brother succeeded in killing me (as I was afraid, during that scene, he might do,) then not only would my mother fail to blame him, but, in fact, my brother and my parents would all blame me. My murder by my brother would seem to them to be deserved, especially if I tried to protect myself. That was the moment that it hit me fully that I was absolutely unsafe in my own home and that the only way I was going to survive was to keep my head down and be as invisible as possible until I could move out.

We grew up and lived apart, so the physical abuse ended. He continued to be emotionally abusive when we met, especially when alone with me or in the presence of my mother, but we had both been raised to believe that I deserved this treatment and that it was not abuse, so I did my best to ignore it when I couldn’t avoid him. The recent scene in our home, however, was not only emotionally abusive, but there was the clear threat of physical violence behind it, directed now not only at me, but also at my children.

My brother including my children in his abuse was a revelation to me. I had accepted from childhood that I was in some inexplicable way deficient enough to deserve abuse, but there was no way I believed that of my children! Furthermore, in my experiences during my marriage and through the counseling I received afterward, I have since come to realize not only that emotional abuse is truly abuse, but that abuse only gets worse. It NEVER gets better. In our last interaction, my brother’s emotional abuse of me and my children was, apparently, extreme. There was no possible benefit to anyone at all in convincing me and my children that we were “too disgusting for anyone to ever want to help.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was about the worst possible thing a person could be – including no possibility of every being loved, valued, hired, or cared for by anyone in any way. It was wholly and only demoralizing of us. Worse, my children all believed their uncle, without questioning what he was saying. He is the most respected authority figure in their family, it seems. My brother’s behavior in the scene he made is clearly identifiable by objective, authoritative sources as textbook “abuse.” Beyond that, however, the horrific rage with which he inflicted it, along with the history of physical abuse, left me in no doubt at all that it would quickly escalate into physical as well as emotional abuse. He was not only making it absolutely clear that he had no affection nor even the slightest respect for any of us, but that he felt fully entitled to abuse us based on our current vulnerability and dependence on him. He obviously considered himself to have bought a whole family of punching bags with a handful of promises that no one could force him to keep.

My refusing contact with him since has so far put me out of his reach (though, with my impoverishment, that could change) but my children, being willing to meet with him, makes them vulnerable to him. So now I see him grooming them toward this end. His maligning me to my children to undermine what little, if any, respect for me they may still hold, thereby encouraging them to dismiss my warnings, is another step closer to when he starts beating on them physically as well as emotionally.

Is it a “grudge” to want to protect myself and my children from someone who had been abusive, defends his abuse, expresses enjoyment in abusing others, and whom I am certain intends to acerbate his abuse of us in the future? I would say my behavior is simple common sense. I don’t consider that I am holding a grudge against venomous snakes because I don’t want them in my home and I protect myself against them in the wild. I am only acknowledging the threat they pose and avoiding it. It seems to me the same with my brother. One might say that, because of our lifelong relationship, we have more mutual obligation to each other than I would have to a cobra, but, since our lifelong relationship has included instances of him being abusive to me throughout our childhood, and has been devoid of any instance of him showing me any true kindness or respect, then is it really so different? I believe that, if my brother had acknowledged the wrongness of his behavior toward me and my children, accepted the responsibility for it, promised to change, and not revealed the fact that he enjoyed doing it so much that he could not understand why we failed to enjoy having him do it to us, then I would have given him another chance. A wise counselor might have been appalled by my decision to do so, but, for the sake of our relationship, especially since he is the only immediate family member I have left on this earth, I might have risked it. He did the opposite, however, so of course I want to avoid the obvious risk he now poses to myself and my children. Can this, therefore, be rightly termed “holding a grudge?” And, if it is “holding a grudge,” is it really wrong to do so?

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